SEOUL — When the FIFA Under-20 World Cup kicks off in South Korea Saturday, some of the planet’s most talented young players will be looking to emulate legends such as Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi and win the tournament MVP award.
From May 20 to June 11, a new generation of Argentinian prospects will try to lead the country to a record seventh victory, starting with a blockbuster clash against old rival England at Jeonju World Cup Stadium.
Host South Korea and Guinea complete Group A.
Argentina coach Claudio Ubeda is looking forward to the challenge. “We have a good record in this tournament,” he said in Vietnam earlier in May. “It is important to get off to a good start and we know that we have a very tough opening game against England.”
England is still trying to break its duck in this tournament though coach Paul Simpson arrives with a talented roster full of English Premier League talent including three from champion Chelsea and five from Everton.
“I’m delighted with the squad we’ve been able to assemble out here and really looking forward to seeing the players perform on a wonderful stage,” Simpson said on arrival in Korea. “Hopefully, we can entertain the South Korean public and get some positive results.”
In this 24-team tournament, England is not seen as a front-runner, with Germany, France, Italy and Portugal regarded as the favorites from Europe and Argentina and Uruguay expected to lead the South American charge in the absence of Brazil, which failed to qualify.
Two of those potential winners meet Sunday as Uruguay takes on Italy in Suwon, just south of the capital Seoul.
Rodrigo Amaral was the top scorer as Uruguay won the Under-19 South American Championship. The striker is regarded as one of the brightest prospects in world soccer.
France won the 2016 UEFA Under-19 title and is expected to ease into the last 16 from a group containing Honduras, New Zealand and Vietnam.
Jean-Kevin Augustin was the top scorer in that title win with six goals and the Paris St-Germain striker should lead the line in South Korea.
The United States is traveling to the tournament as confederation champion for the first time in its history and kicks off Group F against Ecuador and then goes on to face Senegal and Saudi Arabia.
Coach Tab Ramos has a number of injuries to contend with and has struggled to secure the release of some of his European-based players.
The team does have a number of talents in its roster including Real Salt Lake winger Brooks Lennon, on loan from English Premier League giant Liverpool.
Monday’s clash with Ecuador in the port city of Incheon will be crucial for Team USA.
Ramos said that by drawing “the runner-up team in South America as the first team that we play, we already start with a final. So in this tournament we cannot afford to gradually get better.”
With the tournament taking place in Asia, continental hopes rest on the shoulders of Japan and host South Korea. Both countries are excited about young players with Barcelona experience.
Takefusa Kubo spent four years playing for Barcelona’s youth team before signing for FC Tokyo in 2016. Still just 15, the midfielder made his first team debut for the club in a cup match earlier in May and is already a star in Japan.
Japan’s group, with Italy, Uruguay and South Africa is tough. Korea’s is far from easy, with an opening game against Guinea followed by Argentina and England.
Korea’s star is Lee Seung-woo, now in Barcelona’s Under-19 team after spending six years at the Spanish club.
Lee scored against Uruguay in a warm-up game a week before kick-off and ‘South Korea’s Messi’ is confident.
“We want to go as far as we can, go all the way,” said Lee. “First though we have to focus on Guinea.”
Sixteen of the 24 teams will progress to the second round, the top two from each of the six groups and the four best third-place finishers.
The final will take place in Suwon on June 11. — AP